Late yesterday afternoon, while watching my three children swim and splash near the shore of Lago Maggiore, I overheard an Italian girl calling to her mother. The little girl - about eight years old - was running barefooted over the pebbly beach from the shore of the lake toward the thatch of shady trees where her mother and I were sitting. Her long, light-brown hair flew behind her shoulders a little and her face was luminous as she moved swiftly toward her waiting mother. They spoke rapidly in Italian but I understood the girl quite well.
"I'm coming!" she called up the beach. "I know I'm late, I'm sorry. The water is so amazing today mamma and its temperature is perfect. Bellissima!!!" she exclaimed, her voice full of music.
Bellissima. Such an essential Italian adjective. In English, we have a gazillion ways to say 'beautiful'. We say lovely, attractive, alluring... we say stunning. The Italian language describes things with greater simplicity... and an expressive tone. Something good in this country is 'buono' or 'buona'. If it's beautiful, one could call it 'bello' or 'bella'. And then, there is 'bellissima'... something akin to gorgeous.
The delighted little girl running in bathing suit and goggles toward her mother was calling this lake and its waters gorgeous, and I could not help but agree... and sympathize with her yearning to stay. I can very well understand how difficult it will be to pull our family away from this magical lake experience in just a few days.
"What if we got lost in Italy for a while?" I smiled at my husband yesterday.
"That would be very easy to do," he grinned back. "No doubt - this place is amazing."
This will be our fifth night in Lago Maggiore. By night three, we'd fallen so much in love with the locale that we decided to stay here for our full August vacation rather than moving forward to La Spezia and Cinque Terre, as we'd originally planned.
"The biking here is incredible!" exclaimed Señor Aventura, who has been an enthusiastic cyclist ever since The Scientist was born in 2005. My husband is passionate about seeing the world from the seat of his bicycle. He is committed to the pursuit of cycling - along with the emphatically good health it brings - and tries to get in a ride of at least an hour nearly every day of the year. Señor Aventura can cycle 40-50 miles in just a few hours (terrain depending) and often does.
My husband is also what they call a 'climber'. Bicycling on flat terrain has zero appeal to him, as it does not give him either the challenge or the workout he is looking for. He prefers to ride up mountains... the steeper, the better. "I've done at least 4,000 feet of elevation every day we've been here so far," he shared cheerfully, like it was no big deal.
"We should have reserved this place for our entire vacation," he then mused while rinsing a dish in the sink. "I've barely begun to scratch the surface riding around here!"
This caught my attention. It is rare for Señor Aventura to suggest a change in plan. Once we've reserved or paid for something, he likes to stick with it... even under less than ideal circumstances. He loves a good adventure, but money is money. It's rare that he would like a place so much that he'd rather cancel a prior reservation, just so he can stick around and delve deeper.
Also, there is the important matter of his birthday. On Thursday, Señor Aventura will celebrate 42 good years on this planet... 14 of them with me. Birthdays are special days in our family. If we were at home in California I would throw a party for my husband and invite all of his family and close friends, because my husband adores a celebration with good beer, food and music - surrounded by all of the people he loves. (I am the quiet romantic, and he the joyful extrovert.)
Since we are 6,000 miles from home this year, in un bel paese where we know almost nobody, the best celebration I can imagine for Señor Aventura on his birthday involves a long and challenging mountain bike ride followed by the discovery of a fun swimming hole with a waterfall... and (later) a simple Italian feast surrounded by his bambini.
La Spezia, despite its definite allure, could not have offered a secluded mountain swimming hole.
So, given the sensational beauty here, our joy, his comment and the birthday, I promptly cancelled our apartment reservation in La Spezia, and wrote to ask the owner of the comfortable 16th century apartment in Maccagno if we could remain a bit longer.
"Ciao!" he replied. "Nessun problema. Ė possibile allungare di 3 giorni allo stesso prezzo per notte dei primi 5 giorni. Giovanni"
In English, this means yes - you can keep it for the same price. The typical cost of a night's stay in our current mountainside retreat, pictured here from the water, is (drumroll please) 75 euro per night... less than one would pay to stay at a Motel 6 in California!
Viva Italia! Paradise extended.
(Whenever Californians tell me they would love to travel to Europe if it wasn't so expensive... but they're going to San Francisco or Portland for a vacation instead, I remind them that you can get a roundtrip flight from California to Barcelona for $600, many months out of the year. This is roughly the same price you'd pay to travel from California to the US East Coast or Hawaii. One can also get free airplane tickets simply by saving up miles accrued from normal credit card purchases. After you arrive in Europe, it's simple to stay in glorious places on a shoestring budget - especially when traveling with friends! There are 5 beds and 2 couches in our apartment here... and if you divided 75 euro by 5 people, you'd be paying 15 euro a night. Truly, the biggest barriers to international travel are often in our thoughts.)
We were so excited about staying longer in Lago Maggiore, we decided on Sunday to celebrate by taking a drive north around the lake to visit Locarno, Switzerland and then Cannobio, Italy. On Sundays, Cannobio hosts un mercato 'molto tipico' (typical Italian market) that was recommended to us by MariaLorna when we first arrived... we thought it might be a special farmers market.
The children and I were anxious to see Locarno, a lovely Swiss town Señor Aventura had visited by bicycle earlier in the week. After regaling us with his story of enjoying an expensive coffee and decadent apple cake in Locarno after his long ride up the mountain, we were eager to see it for ourselves. Señor Aventura agreed to take us there by car, on his way to cycle in the mountains behind Cannobio.
The road around the lake from Maccagno to Locarno is a single lane in each direction. The journey from town to town is really quite short, with a single border guard looking into cars as they enter Switzerland from Italy. He did not speak to us or ask to see our papers... just waved us through. The entire drive took less than 30 minutes, yet I could feel an immediate difference in the homes and villages as soon as we'd crossed the border. For example, the streets become wider and nicely tended, and there are two lanes in the road. All of the houses on the Swiss side looked recently repainted.
Here are photos of our introduction to Switzerland taken from inside the car. L-Top, you see the way Italian buildings are a bit more run down with paint wearing away from rainfall. T-Right, you can see how Swiss houses just beyond the border look perfectly maintained.
When we arrived in Locarno, Señor Aventura stopped to get a quick panino and our kids played in a little lakeside park with many play structures. The Scientist was really impressed to see a 20-something male jet skier taking jumps off of a water ramp, right in front of the jungle gyms. "Europe is actually pretty COOL, mom," he told me.
It was such a relaxed Sunday morning, everyone in the Muralto neighborhood of Locarno seemed to be out walking along the water in their sundresses, shorts and sandals. American pop music sounded out across the water from boats anchored right offshore (as it does everywhere we travel) and in many ways it felt just like home.
We noticed a few differences though... the boardwalk had no litter and smelled like flowers; voices all around us chatted and laughed politely in German, French and Italian; and the Swiss children around us played so quietly even on the jungle gyms and swings that if we'd been at home, they would have seemed eerily silent. Cars, cafes and apartment buildings around us exuded a general sense of wealth. Señor Aventura's coffee cost twice what it would typically cost in Italy.
Everything seems to cost more in Switzerland - and the Swiss might argue (with good reason) that due to a surplus of funds, cities are pristine and run with greater efficiency.
We spent somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour enjoying the pleasant waterfront scene in Locarno, but Señor Aventura grew a little antsy to go on his fun new bike ride in the mountains above Cannobio... and Little Angel began to ask for lunch in a myriad of ways. "Mommy, what are we having for lunch today?"/ "What time is lunch, daddy?"/ "Mommy, I was wondering where you wanted to eat - I'm really hungry. / "How do you say 'lunch' in Swiss, dad? How do you say it in Italian, mom?"
In truth, 45 minutes in such a perfect place made all of us a little itchy to get back to a slightly grittier place that felt more real. From Cannobio, Italy, the children and I would be able to take an inexpensive ferry boat back across the lake to Maccagno while Señor Aventura conquered his new mountain OR we could stay in Cannobio for the afternoon, get to know its special market and beaches, then drive back with him in Chico Suave at the end of the day.
I'd imagined wandering the quaint streets of Cannobio, popping into churches and shops and then relaxing on the beach while the kids swam on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I was not mentally prepared for the throng of tourists flooding its small streets, or for the intensity of the sun/heat/light reflecting off of the lake. Our children were too hungry to be very interested in the town itself, other than its myriad of gelato shops lining the shore.
Cannobio on 'market day' was very different than we'd expected. Most notably, it was filled with the scent of car exhaust from the long lineup of vendor's trucks. Shopkeepers, vendors and waiters addressed us automatically in English, without even looking up or waiting to see if I would speak in Italian (as I always try to do here). Most people who come to Cannobio on a Sunday for the market are not actually from Italy, so there is an immediate assumption that you are some kind of tourist.
Since Señor Aventura had charged up the mountain on his bicycle with gusto, the children and I sat down to enjoy a delicious - although pricey - meal of authentic pasta, pizza and chilled acqua naturale. I managed the entire dining experience in Italian (per piacere, grazie mille, il conto, etc.), and so felt chagrined when one of the two waiters replied to me in English. "Do you want a to go box, Madam?"
"Does she get irritated when travelers try to speak her language?" I wondered. "Is she practicing her English? Or is she trying to be kind to us by speaking our language?"
After lunch, we walked along the long line of market stalls, looking for an opening to the beach.
As it turned out, the weekly market sold mainly clothing, handmade silver jewelry, sunglasses and ski wear - presumably for next winter. It reminded me more of a swap meet and less of a farmer's market. We saw no food stalls, not a single fresh strawberry or squash blossom in sight. We felt less charmed than we'd hoped... and worse (especially for the kids), there was no beach to speak of - just a tiny, manmade pebble cove along the shore.
"Maccagno has much better beaches," pronounced Soccer Dude. "Can we go back home to swim?"
"Yes!" agreed Little Angel. "I want to go to the beach at home."
This explains why, after skipping some stones across the water in the little Cannobio cove, we hopped aboard a sensational 13 minute ferry ride across Lago Maggiore to Maccagno - such a complete joy - so the children could swim on the Maccagno side of the shore. Here are the photos of our stroll through Cannobio and ferry ride home.
The ferry ride was so cheap, relaxed and beyond beautiful... it immediately opened up a preferred mode of travel for our family. As much as we love Chico Suave, driving in any car doesn't hold a candle to relaxing on the top deck of a summertime ferry with a gentle breeze. We look forward to taking boats around the lake to visit new towns all week!